Delivering bad news isn’t pleasant—but at times, it’s necessary. Geoffrey Tumlin shares a simple formula to help you conduct life’s difficult conversations.
Bad news is no fun to deliver. That’s why even distinguished leaders and otherwise successful people will go to great lengths to avoid doing it. For example, you might tolerate a longstanding, but mediocre, vendor instead of giving the contract to another company. Or maybe you make excuses to hold on to an underperforming employee. And admit it: You’ve almost certainly hung around in a problematic personal relationship (romantic or platonic) longer than you should have.
These delays buy us a reprieve, but they surely don’t improve the situation. In fact, as we hesitate, prevaricate, and beat around the bush, the underlying problem gets worse and the web of complications grows ever more tangled. That’s why Geoffrey Tumlin says we owe it to ourselves to study up on the fine art of delivering bad news.
“If you were hoping for a way around the unpleasant emotions that accompany the delivery of bad news, I’ll have to disappoint you—there isn’t one,” says Tumlin, author of the new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, August 2013, ISBN: 978-0-0718130-4-4, $20.00, www.tumlin.com). “But there are some strategies to help you deal with these conversations more promptly and successfully.”
That’s where Stop Talking, Start Communicating comes in. Full of counterintuitive yet concrete advice, it draws on Tumlin’s considerable experience as a communication consultant to show readers how to improve conversations, develop productive communication habits, build stronger relationships, and use our powerful digital devices to their full advantage.
“Delivering bad news is an essential skill, even if it won’t win you any popularity contests,” Tumlin asserts. “Dealing with issues promptly and decisively can save you time, energy, and even money—not to mention all the mental anguish you feel while putting off a difficult conversation.”
Here, Tumlin shares four things to keep in mind the next time you need to deliver a message the other person won’t want to hear:
1. Get to the core of the matter. When you were writing essays in high school, dredging up a thesis statement may have made you feel like banging your head against your desk. Even now, coming up with the perfect hook to put into a business proposal for a potential client can take hours of your time. But according to Tumlin, determining your core message will be surprisingly easy when it comes to delivering bad news.
“Your core message is obvious when you’re giving bad news: It’s the thing you don’t want to say,” he points out. “Your core message might be, ‘We’re switching vendors,’ or, ‘We have to let you go,’ or, ‘We should stop seeing each other.’ The message you’ve been avoiding is the message you need to deliver.”
2. Stick to your guns. Determining your core message was the easy part. You may not find the remainder of your task as simple. Think back to the tough conversations you’ve had in the past: Have you ever been talked out of your decision by the other person (“But we’ve worked together for fifteen years—you’re not really letting me go, are you?”) or even changed your mind before delivering the bad news (She’s going to be so upset—I just can’t go through with it.)?
“You don’t do yourself or the other person any favors by putting off a hard conversation,” says Tumlin. “Remember, when giving bad news, you’re not negotiating, fact finding, or gathering input. Resist the temptation to get pushed, cajoled, or charmed off your message. Keep your end goal in mind and deliver your less-than-pleasant message here and now. Bad news is like taking off a Band-Aid—it’s best done quickly.”
3. Explain yourself (but not too much). It’s important to make sure that the other party understands your bad news message and doesn’t walk away with the wrong impression. For instance: “We have to let you go because we’re bringing on someone with a different skill set.” “We’re switching vendors because we need different service schedules.” “I think we should stop seeing each other because we’re both miserable.”
“As in these examples, strive to state your core message and explanation—the reason behind the message—in one sentence,” instructs Tumlin. “You can repeat variants of your message and explanation if you want to say more, but don’t add new information or you may encourage a drift away from your core message.”
4. Get out. (Of the conversation, that is.) If you’ve communicated your core message, and the other person understands, it’s probably acceptable to start thinking about an exit. Naturally, you should address any obvious questions (like “Do we keep making deliveries this week?” “When’s my last day?” “Who keeps the cat?”), but be wary of answering too many speculative or probing questions.
“In this type of conversation, your core message pretty much speaks for itself, and a great deal of unnecessary damage is often done when you overstay a difficult conversation,” comments Tumlin. “You might end up giving up ground you hadn’t intended to, talking about topics that are better left unaddressed, or escalating the conversation to the point of hostility.”
“When it’s time to deliver bad news, don’t get pushed off of your core message,” concludes Tumlin. “It’s a simple formula: Be clear, be concise, and be gone.”
By Geoffrey Tumlin
Geoffrey Tumlin is the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. He is the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC, a communication consulting company; president of On-Demand Leadership, a leadership development company; and founder and board chair of Critical Skills Nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to providing communication and leadership skills training to chronically underserved populations. His writing on communication and leadership has appeared in scholarly journals, newspapers, and textbooks, including Discourse Studies, the International Leadership Journal, the Encyclopedia of Leadership, the Austin American-Statesman, and five editions of Professional Communication Skills.
Tumlin holds a PhD and an MA in communication from the University of Texas at Austin and a BS from West Point. He received the Eyes of Texas Excellence Award in 2010 for his work as the assistant director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a faculty fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service and a Cátedras Laboris Fellow at the University of Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico.
Tumlin currently serves as trustee of the National Communication Association’s Mark L. Knapp Award Individual Endowment, the most prestigious interpersonal communication honor bestowed annually by the National Communication Association in recognition of career contributions to the academic study of interpersonal communication. Tumlin has taught thousands of people about communication and leadership and has consulted with some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, including Shell Oil, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, the Boston Scientific Corporation, Hibernia National Bank (now Capital One Bank), Blue Star Management, and the Honolulu Police Department. He lives in Austin, Texas.